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Ask Family Reading: "Inappropriate" Books

Justine writes:

Help! I don’t police the books my kids are reading, but I just read a quick synopsis of the Arc of a Scythe series (Neal Shusterman), which my ten-year-old is two-thirds of the way through! YIKES! Suicide! Mass Murder! Overpopulation! Torture! Sooo many things we’ve never talked about (and so many things I’m not ready to talk about!). I suspect this is the first time he’s heard many of these terms, let alone read about them in great detail! What to do?!

Hey Justine,

I think that the fact you know what your kids are reading at all is a win! No, let’s take it back a step. Your kids are reading! Books that they selected! Triple win! This is a first world problem! Just kidding. Sort of.

I totally understand your predicament. This is the moment we always dreamed of, right? The little darlings are off and running. With their own library cards, or access to your Amazon cart, or generous friends with endless shelves to glean (this is a Shusterman reference!!). The “danger” here is that they are babes in the woods and who knows what they will encounter. The good news is, I was reading V. C. Andrews at age twelve and I turned out ok (sort of?). But more broadly, if they are selecting age-appropriate titles that have been procured from a major publisher, I have to assume the books aren’t terrible. (No comment on selfpublished “unofficial Minecraft” novellas.) And if your child is two-thirds of a way through a trilogy, there must be something there to hook them! (This is my last Shusterman reference, I promise.)

If it’s an author or a title you are completely unfamiliar with, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do a little research. You can decide your next steps from there. I use reviews from The Horn Book and Common Sense Media to inform my decisions about content, books and otherwise. But to be honest, most of the parenting homework I do is related to gaming/online stuff — because I feel that’s an area I can’t control (not to mention an area I don’t understand). With books, I have generally always toed the line of “if you can read it, you can read it” which is also how I feel about climbing trees and ambitious outdoor activities in general. “If you can do it, you can do it.”

The great thing about books (and something I have mentioned in my earlier column about movies) is, it’s really easy to self-edit. If something is too much for you, you can put the book down, or skip that part entirely. I know for a fact my older son has breezed through some romance/kissing stuff in books just to get back to the “good” parts (ha, ha). And I am fairly certain I had NO idea what was happening most of the time when I first encountered Judy Blume’s ode to male adolescence (Then Again, Maybe I Won't), but I stuck with it anyway because I wanted to find out what Tony got Grandma for Christmas.

I also think this is an easy way to create dialogue. You could say to your child, “I haven’t read that book. I’d love to hear what you think.” And you can offer the standard parental disclaimer: “if you read anything you aren’t sure about, or encounter something that makes you uncomfortable, let’s talk about it.” Another advice columnist would probably suggest you also read the book and then have a follow-up discussion, but I’m not that person, and besides, you have clogs to stalk on eBay with your limited free time (fifteen minutes per day, I’m guessing?).

As parents/educators/caregivers, we control so many of our kids’ choices (especially now, with everyone home all the time). It makes me really happy to think of them wandering aimlessly through the bookstore or library, being allowed to choose anything they want. In fact, choosing and reading what you want is one of the Rights of the Reader! (#5!). What more sublime pleasure is there than browsing the stacks and picking up whatever strikes your fancy? How could we not want that for our children? It’s a tiny step towards some of the freedoms that adulthood offers. Perhaps it’s the literary equivalent of walking home from school by yourself. Just the right amount of adventure, punctuated with maybe a couple of things you don’t understand.

Sarah Howard Parker

Sarah Howard Parker is a writer and actress living in London. Her writing has appeared on Boston.com and The Awl. She blogs (infrequently) about karaoke at karaokeadvice.tumblr.com.

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Mary Fuchs

I agree with Ronda's comment. I was concerned about how violent and disturbing the Hunger Games series and movies are. But my daughter said, "oh, they're just movies." I also found "The Dark Knight Rises" movie terrifying, in the scene of the stadium explosion (hope I'm referencing the right Batman movie), but my kids thought it was just splashy cinematic effects. I was more upset because I could extrapolate these incidents to the real world, but my kids thought they were just stories/movies to watch from a distance.I think your idea to discuss and support younger readers is excellent.

Posted : Jan 15, 2021 03:08

Ronda Nissen

It is my experience that children do not bring the background knowledge to the text that we do as adults, therefore a ten year old will only let it be as scary or gruesome as their mind can handle. Let's think of the scary folktales we tell children, grandma eaten by a wolf, kids shoving a witch into a stove, step-sisters cutting off their toe to fit in the shoe etc. I agree your child is a great decoder and is newly attaching meaning to these unfamiliar topics, and this exposure will be the hooks to hang new knowledge on. With any luck at all in the future he will reread them at 13 or 14 and see the underlying political undertones and themes in this well written trilogy. Bless you for letting him read what he can read, and be thankful he has moved beyond the cutesy episodic series so popular with the 4th & 5th grade set.

Posted : Nov 17, 2020 02:50


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